Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought presents insightful, critical, and timely reviews.
Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought presents insightful, critical, and timely reviews.
Holly Welker, ed. Baring Witness: 36 Mormon Women Talk Candidly about Love, Sex, and Marriage. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2016. 296 pp. Paperback: $19.95.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ostler. Dialogue, Summer 2017 (50:2).
We all know the Sunday School answers, but life rarely, if ever, plays out like a seminary video. So what do love, sex, and marriage look like in the lived experience of Mormon women?
Journalist, poet, and “spinster who thinks and writes a great deal about marriage” (1) Holly Welker has compiled a collection of essays that unapologetically reveals the intersection of Mormon theology, culture, individuality, and relational living in her latest book, Baring Witness: 36 Mormon Women Talk Candidly about Love, Sex, and Marriage.
Scott Abbott. Immortal for Quite Some Time. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2016. 257 pp. Paperback: $24.95.
Reviewed by Scott Russell Morris, Dialogue, Summer 2017 (50:2).
In Immortal for Quite Some Time, Scott Abbott meditates on his brother’s death. That Abbott comes from a devoted Mormon family and that his brother was gay and died of AIDS is the tagline that seems to sell the book—and this review, too, apparently, as I am writing that first despite my best intentions—but really, this book is not about his brother John or about the homophobic culture of the LDS Church and many of its adherents, despite both of those being common motifs. It is about Scott Abbott. And, as all good personal non fiction is, it isn’t really about Scott Abbott either, but rather about what it means to grow up in a culture that is so overwhelmingly shaping that it “informs even your sentence structure” (89) and then to find that you no longer want to have a place in it. In the last few weeks as I’ve contemplated what I might say about Abbott’s book and as I’ve discussed it with others (one of whom saw it on my couch and asked, based on the title, if it was a vampire novel), I’ve described it in a few ways: It is about a BYU professor who was in the thick of the academic freedom concerns at BYU in the ’90s. Or, it is about a brother going through his dead brother’s things and thinking about what that might mean about the two of them, both nonconformists. For those more interested in writing and less about the story, I’ve told them about the most interesting feature of the book: It is written mostly as a series of journal entries, but there are a lot of other voices; for example, a female critic consistently questions the stories and rhetoric in Abbott’s entries, which he responds to in a separate editorial voice. There are also his brother’s words, at first taken from found texts like notebooks, letters, and book annotations, but then, toward the end, John actually speaks from the dead, directly to the narrator, though mostly to underscore the fact that he no longer has a voice, deflecting questions by responding, “You can probably answer that yourself,” and “I don’t really get to answer that, do I?” (207, 202).
Scott Hales. The Garden of Enid: Adventures of a Weird Mormon Girl, Part One. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2016. 168 pp. Paperback: $22.95.
Scott Hales. The Garden of Enid: Adventures of a Weird Mormon Girl, Part Two. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2017. 169 pp. Paperback: $22.95.
Reviewed by Brittany Long Olsen, Dialogue, Summer 2017 (50:2).
At its core, Scott Hales’s two-volume graphic novel The Garden of Enid: Adventures of a Weird Mormon Girl is a coming-of-age-story through a Mormon lens. Self-proclaimed weird Mormon girl Enid is a misfit who feels equally misunderstood in her church community and at home with her single mother, a former alcoholic struggling with illness and depression. Some self-introspection and life-altering experiences lead Enid to care about other people and appreciate how much they care about her.
Scott Hales. The Garden of Enid: Adventures of a Weird Mormon Girl. Parts One and Two. Kofford Books. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2016. 169 pp. Paperback: $22.95.
Reviewed by Steven L. Peck. Dialogue, Summer 2017 (50:2).
When I was growing up, comic strips provided part of the ontology of my world. I devoured regular comic books, graphic novels, and other bubble-voiced media, but comic strips played a different and more important role than these other closely related forms. It was in the four-paneled strip that I was rst introduced to philosophical thought, political commentary, satire, and the exploration of questions rather than the explication of information toward an answer. Plus they made me laugh. There was a point being made. About life. And often about my place in it. Comic strips were my first introduction into a weird form of deep psychology that let me explore what it meant to be me. The sign on Lucy’s famous wooden stand in Peanuts, offering, instead of lemonade, “Psychiatric Help: 5¢: The Doctor is IN” does not seem an inappropriate way to express one of the functions these comic strips played in my life. I suppose given my age it is not surprising that it was Charles Schultz’s famous comic that proved the gateway drug to my infatuation with the medium.
States of Deseret. William Morris, editor. Peculiar Press, 2017. Alternative history short story anthology. 109 pages, $3.00.
Reviewed by Barrett Burgin
Last year I presented this scenario to my classmates: what if the Civil War had never ended and Deseret had become its own nation? This idea of an alternate Mormon history really took hold on a classroom of BYU Media Arts students. Later, I found myself similarly fascinated while reading the new alternative history story collection States of Deseret. There is, perhaps, something inherently interesting to Mormons about reimagining our own brief history. Whether it’s a Zionistic yearning for our unfinished theocracy or a regretful wish to rewrite past wrongs, States of Deseret taps into our cultural dance with history and uses it as a platform to entertain, educate, and inquire.
Reviewed by Julie J. Nichols
It’s a hard truth: you have to be damn smart to be a writer of good fiction. If you’re dumb, forget it. You have to hear words in your head—and who doesn’t? But you also have to know how to put them together in a sentence that’s not only grammatical but original in its context, truer than any other sentence could possibly be. Then you have to do that with paragraphs and chapters in the service of a whole whose shape knocks readers right out of unconsciousness, makes them alive, blasts their eyes open so they see the world new.
Shawn Vestal is smart. He’s so smart he could write Daredevils, which is about three daredevil kids on the run, two of the daredevil bad guys they’re on the run from, and Evel Knievel, who was the quintessential iconic daredevil of the United States in the 1970s. He figures just enough in this story to be real. Or almost.
Thomas F. Rogers. Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand: Reflections on Faith, Reason, Charity, and Beauty. Provo: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2016. 349 pp.
Reviewed by Mahonri Stewart
As a book of short, religious, and academic non-fiction, Thomas F. Rogers’s Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand is extremely valuable to the Mormon intellectual community; but as a reflection of a devoted disciple and a soulful artist, it goes beyond even that to be authentically moving. In a modern world where spirituality and religious belief is a place of tension and contention, Rogers has written from his place of the faithful agitator—pushing our culture’s boundaries where needed and then turning around to help the Mormon community reach inward and pull the wagons around shared principles.
Reviewed by Emily Shelton Poole
In her full-length debut, Pigs When They Straddle the Air: A Novel in Seven Stories, Julie J. Nichols presents the interconnected lives of various women living in Salt Lake City over a span of thirty years, mostly during the 1970s and 1980s. Each of the seven stories focuses on a different main character until their lives become so entangled that the narratives converge in tragedy, heartache, and eventual healing. Some of these stories appeared previously in other publications, including Dialogue.
Nichols wrote the stories as part of her dissertation for a PhD in English from the University of Utah. Two of the stories were controversial enough that Nichols lost her position as a creative writing instructor at Brigham Young University. I speculated, briefly, about which stories could have brought about Nichols’s dismissal from BYU—was it the lesbian teaching Primary or the woman calling on Heavenly Mother to bless a nearly-drowned child? The reference to abortifacient herbs? Or the faith healing without the official exercise of the priesthood? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Each one touches, to some degree, on the fringy edges of Mormonism, and while the stories are ction and easy to dismiss in an academic way, the existence of actual people on those fringes is a far different matter to consider. In their first iterations, she says, they were unrelated, but many explored “the difficulties of being an educated, unorthodox woman in Utah Mormon culture.”
Julie Berry. The Passion of Dolssa. New York: Viking Books for Young Readers, 2016. 496 pp.
Jeff Zentner. The Serpent King. New York: Crown Books for Young Readers, 2016. 384 pp.
Reviewed by Jon Ostenson
Modern young adult literature traces its roots to 1967, when S. E. Hinton’s book The Outsiders was published and subsequently devoured by young readers who were desperate for literature that spoke to them and reflected the realities they saw daily. In the ensuing years, young adult literature has bravely explored controversial topics like class struggle, mental illnesses, drug abuse, and sexuality, all in the name of allowing teen readers a chance to explore the “real” world. One element of teens’ lives, however, that has often been overlooked in the literature is religion and spirituality. Despite the results of the recent National Study of Youth and Religion showing that nearly forty percent of teens report actively participating in organized religion, religious characters and explorations of spirituality are rarely treated in young adult literature.
The two titles I review here, The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry and The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, counter this trend, presenting characters who wrestle with issues of faith and belief as they navigate the challenges of their world.
Jack Harrell. Writing Ourselves: Essays on Creativity, Craft, and Mormonism. Draper, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2016. 156 pp. Paperback: $18.95. ISBN: 978-1-58958-754-0.
Reviewed by Jennifer Quist
The back cover of Jack Harrell’s new collection Writing Ourselves: Essays on Creativity, Craft, and Mormonism describes the book as a continuation of “a conversation as old as Mormonism itself.” It’s a fraught phrase, bringing to mind the image of an academic, artistic, and social in-group that has been conversing among themselves for a very long time. It isn’t the in-group’s fault that the conversation happens in the absence of non-members and newcomers to the Church, neither is it their fault that it goes on without writers, readers, and scholars unconnected to the American Mormon heartland. None of this is the in-group’s fault, but perhaps all of it is their problem. Many in the in-group strive to, in Harrell’s words,“giv[e] the church and its religion a human and literary face” (99). However, we can’t understand what our own faces look like without relying on the re ections and perceptions of people and objects outside ourselves. Perhaps Jack Harrell, as a previous outsider to not just the Mormon literary world but the Mormon world altogether, is especially well-suited to put himself forward to articulate what Mormon letters are and what they ought to be and become.
Stanton Harris Hall. Just Seeing. Self-published, 2016. 109 pp.
Reviewed by Mary Lythgoe Bradford
Stan Hall was one of Dialogue’s most enthusiastic volunteers back in the ’70s when I was its editor. We published some of his poetry then and were sorry when he moved back to his home turf in the Northwest. I was therefore happy to see that he had continued to hone his poetic gift in his privately published collection Just Seeing. The quality of this work causes me to hope that it will be read beyond his family circle, extending even into a second volume, perhaps entitled Just Saying.
Hall is a poet on whom nothing is lost—whose gimlet eye misses little in nature or in human nature. His ne brush strokes recall the Japanese masters of the haiku. He is adept at sketching the place where nature meets its creator as it dreams of “taking the soul in hand / and twisting / like lime or sassafras / release the dry corona-white spirit / from the body’s moist darkness / the spirit freed / the child reunited” (50).
Eric Freeze. Invisible Men: Stories. San Francisco: Outpost 19, 2016. 150 pp. Paperback: $16.00.
Reviewed by Lisa Rumsey Harris
Dialogue. Winter 2016
The gaze of the girl on the cover of Eric Freeze’s short story collection arrested me—stopped me. Her eyes, full of hostility, told me that if I opened the book, I would be intruding. Her bright knee-length plaid skirt, reminiscent of schoolgirl uniforms, belied the knowledge behind her glare. If it wasn’t for her posture, her arms embracing something, I wouldn’t have noticed the titular Invisible Man next to her on the cover.
Her warning wasn’t wrong. I felt like an intruder as I began to read. I could only take it in small doses—read, then turn the ideas over and over in my mind, like rubbing a smooth stone between my fingers.
Ashley Mae Hoiland. One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly: The Art of Seeking God. Provo: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2016. 212 pp. Paperback: $11.92.
Reviewed by Glen Nelson.
Dialogue, Winter 2016
One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly: The Art of Seeking God is a collection of short missives—poems, essays, and autobiographical sketches— grouped loosely and thematically into thirteen sections and an epilogue. Ashley Mae Hoiland is the author/illustrator of three self-published children’s books, a contributor to a collection of essays, Fresh Courage Take: New Directions by Mormon Women (Signature Books, 2015), a blogger (under the name ashmae) for By Common Consent, and the creator of a collection of sixty (trading or ash) cards of notable women in history, We Brave Women (Kickstarter, 2015).
Patrick Madden. Sublime Physick: Essays. University of Nebraska Press, 2016. 244 pp. Hardcover: $24.95.
Reviewed by Joe Plicka
Dialogue, Winter 2016
Patrick Madden’s second book of collected essays, following 2010’s Quotidiana (which won an award from the Association for Mormon Letters and was a nalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award), bears the mark of a writer hitting his stride. All the usual adjectives apply: the essays are at times witty, profound, charming, moving, playful (even cheeky), and wise. As anyone who has hung around a creative writing classroom knows by now, personal essays are grounded in a carefully curated friendship between reader and writer, a dialogue, an intimacy—a formulation probably most plainly expressed (recently) by Phillip Lopate in the introduction to his seminal anthology The Art of the Personal Essay. It is this quality of friendship, of candid and dazzling conversation, that engages and entices me as a reader throughout Sublime Physick’s dozen entries
Old Words, New Work: Reclamation and Remembrance
John Russell. The Mormoness; Or, The Trials of Mary Maverick: A Narrative of Real Events. Edited and annotated by Michael Austin and Ardis E. Parshall. The Mormon Image in Literature. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2016 . 114 pp. Paperback: $12.95.
Alfreda Eva Bell. Boadicea; The Mormon Wife: Life-Scenes in Utah. Edited and annotated by Michael Austin and Ardis E. Parshall. The Mormon Image in Literature. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2016 . 151 pp. Paperback: $15.95.
Nephi Anderson. Dorian: A Peculiar Edition with Annotated Text & Scholarship. Edited by Eric W. Jepson. Annotated by Mason Allred, Jacob Bender, Scott Hales, Blair Dee Hodges, Eric W. Jepson, Sarah C. Reed, and A. Arwen Taylor. El Cerrito, Calif.: Peculiar Pages, 2015 . 316 pp. Paperback: $21.99.
Reviewed by Jenny Webb
Dialogue, Winter 2016
The continual rising interest in all things Mormon, whether they be historical, cultural, social, doctrinal, or even theological, has led to a number of interesting publication projects. The texts gathered in this review represent a particular focus within this broader interest: the recovery and re-examination of the various historical forms of the “Mormon novel.”
Reviewed by Heather B. Moore
For Time and All Eternities is the third installment of the Linda Wallheim mystery series. For Time works well as a standalone—in fact, I read the first book The Bishop’s Wife, but not the second book. I didn’t feel lost, which I appreciated. Linda Wallheim is the wife of an LDS Bishop, and although she and her husband have raised five children together, recent months in their marriage has been rocky. Linda is sympathetic to those who have struggled with a church policy change, and she finds that her sympathies have created a deep divide between her and her husband Kurt. Regardless, they continue to move through the motions of their marriage until the day that Linda’s son Kenneth comes to tell her he is marrying a young woman from a polygamist family. Linda and Kurt are shocked, but they agree to meet the young woman Naomi, who in turn, invites Linda and Kurt to meet her very large family–which includes Naomi’s father Stephen Carter, his five wives, and dozens of children.
Karen Rosenbaum. Mothers, Daughters, Sisters, Wives. Provo: Zarahemla Books, 2015. 204 pp.
Reviewed by Josh Allen
When reading Karen Rosenbaum’s short story collection Mothers, Daughters, Sisters, Wives, I kept thinking about the end of The Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald’s haunting conclusion: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” So it is with the women who populate Rosenbaum’s fourteen stories in this collection. The past defines them, breathes always within them. They live preoccupied with family legacies and personal histories, often ruminating, always remembering.
Mary Lythgoe Bradford. Mr. Mustard Plaster and Other Mormon Essays. Draper, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2015. 185 pp.
Reviewed by Joey Franklin
In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot writes that tradition “cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.”1 This has always underscored for me the importance of knowing your literary tradition, of reading widely and deeply, and of exposing yourself to a variety of great voices. In many ways the work I did in graduate school was a clunky attempt to cultivate what Eliot calls “the historical sense,” an awareness of tradition that “compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones” but with “the whole of the literature of Europe” and “the whole of the literature of his own country” in his mind as well.2 Tradition, to Eliot, was the deep well of Western literature. Studying the personal essay in school, tradition for me meant the work of the genre’s luminaries—Montaigne and Bacon, Hazlitt and Lamb, Woolf and Didion, Baldwin and White.
Darin Cozzens. The Last Blessing of J. Guyman LeGrand and Other Stories. Provo: Zarahemla Books, 2016. 202 pp. Paper: $14.95.
Reviewed by Braden Hepner
Darin Cozzens’s second collection, The Last Blessing of J. Guyman LeGrand and Other Stories, contains emus and Mormon spinsters, ill- fated wedding ceremonies and wheelchair races in the dementia ward, washtub nostalgia and the ambiguous values of patriarchal blessings. Beneath these elements of the quietly bizarre run themes of desire, fate, and, most prominently, forgiveness.
Joey Franklin. My Wife Wants You to Know I’m Happily Married. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015. 194 pp. Paper: $19.95. ISBN: 978-0-8032-7844-8.
Reviewed by Eric Freeze
At the last Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, a famed historical literary figure stood for pictures and selfies next to booths piled high with books. He was bald except for a tuft of hair in the middle of his head and a dark goatee and handlebar mustache. In a more mainstream context, people would probably think he was Shakespeare with his brocade doublet and puffy sleeves. But most images of Shakespeare emphasize his shoulder-length bob. And Shakespeare wore a stiff collar, not a pleated ruff. Maybe the actor just didn’t have the hair? And why the goatee? But anyone who has studied the history of the essay knew immediately when they saw him: it was Michel de Montaigne.
Reviewed by Darin Stewart
Judith Freeman’s The Latter Days is a remarkable memoir of an unremarkable life. The American novelist ticks all of the standard boxes when recounting her childhood – abusive father, distant mother, disowned sibling, youthful indiscretion – none falling outside a common coming of age narrative. She accomplishes nothing particularly noteworthy and does nothing particularly dreadful. What makes the memoir fascinating is the context in which these non-events occur. Freeman grew up in a small, uniformly Mormon town in 1950s Utah. That backdrop elevates her beautifully written narrative from mildly diverting memoir to insightful social and religious commentary.
Reviewed by Julie J. Nichols for the Association for Mormon Letters
A surprising number of newly published works of LDS fiction are by middle-aged to oldish authors who’ve been lurking, apparently growing in wisdom and wherewithal, for decades–Karen Rosenbaum. Me. And now Scott Bronson.
Scott’s been doing theater in many places for many years. You can Google him and find his filmography as well as his bio, so much so that when Margaret Blair Young was charged with putting together a panel of Mormon artists last month to celebrate Dialogue’s Diamond Jubilee, she recruited Scott and Tom Rogers and Sterling Van Wagenen, all big theater names, and then me, not such a big name, but local and newly published and therefore perhaps a good token female novelist to set off all those dramaturgs. Tom stepped up on his own and gathered in Eric Samuelson (beloved retired dramatist from BYU) and Brian Kershisnik (beloved artist), thinking, I guess, and probably rightly, that the panel would be better rounded out if they were included. He gave us all copies of his recently published collection of essays, and Scott had come prepared with his new book too.
David G. Pace. Dream House on Golan Drive. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2015. 300 pp. Paperback: $24.95.
Reviewed by Eric W. Jepson
How to represent lived religious experience without either underplaying its reality or slipping into the magical-fantastical is an ongoing difficulty in Mormon literature. David G. Pace, in his novel Dream House on Golan Drive, has decided to lean hard into that latter option. The story is narrated by Zedekiah, one of the Three Nephites assigned to watch over young Riley Hartley. What makes Riley special enough to deserve this honor is never clear. Also unclear is just how much of an “honor” it is to have Zedekiah acting as, essentially, his guardian angel.
Mormonism from Varied Fictional Perspectives
William Morris. Dark Watch and Other Mormon-American Stories. A Motley Vision, 2015. 124 pp. E-book: $2.99.
Reviewed by Jonathan Langford
Short story collections are a medium well suited to explorations of Mormonism as a culture and what it means to be Mormon. They allow for diversity. They impose few limitations. They permit an author to change focus and perspective as desired, zoom in on specific details, follow a subject for just long enough to see him or her in an interesting context and then cut away. William Morris’s collection of sixteen Mormon-themed short stories (some of them very short indeed) takes full advantage of this potential.
Reviewed by Shelah Miner.
In her second novel, Sistering, Canadian author Jennifer Quist draws on her personal expertise as the oldest of five sisters in a book that is as much about the ways that a group of sisters see themselves and come together as a family unit as it is about the accidental death at the heart of the plot.
Quist’s first novel, Love Letters of the Angels of Death (2013) was serious and poetic . . . While neither novel is overtly Mormon, the main characters in Love Letters display signs that tip off their religion to an LDS audience. The same is not true of Sistering, where questions of faith and afterlife take a back seat to what is happening in the here and now.
Reviewed by Rosalynde Frandsen Welch
Craig Harline’s mission memoir, Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled but Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary, is a hilarious, heart-of-gold account of the highs and lows of the author’s experiences in the Belgium Antwerp Mission in the early 1970s. The story proceeds chronologically through the events of Harline’s mission call and training period in the old LTM, his arrival in Belgium and subsequent travails with uninterested Belgians, and his eventual return home as a slightly-older and probably-a-bit-wiser young man. Throughout, young Elder Harline wrestles with his own unrealistic expectations of grandeur and occasionally encounters a moment of shimmering grace. The events and settings are, on the surface, highly entertaining but hardly exceptional. Non-Mormon readers, who are the primary audience for the book’s publisher, Eerdmans, will come away with a lightly-seasoned glimpse of a Mormon mission experience in Europe; Mormon readers familiar with mission culture will respond with recognition and identification.
Steven L. Peck. Wandering Realities: The Mormonish Short Fiction of Steven L. Peck. Provo: Zarahemla Books, 2015. 220 pp. Paperback: $14.95. ISBN: 978-0988323346.
Steven L. Peck. Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist. Provo: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2015. 211 pp. Paperback: $19.95. ISBN: 978-0842529440.
Reviewed by Michael Austin
If someone ever asks me what kinds of things Steven Peck writes, the best answer I can give goes like this: the BYU biology professor and raconteur writes primarily in the fields of evolutionary biology, speculative theology, literary fiction, computer modeling, poetry, existential horror, satire, personal essay, tsetse fly reproduction, young-adult literature, human ecology, science fiction, religious allegory, environmentalism, and devotional narrative. You know, that kind of thing.
Book Review: A Book of Contradictions: Ink and Ashes by Valynne E. Maetani.
Reviewed by Melissa McShane Valyenne E. Maetani.
Ink and Ashes. Tu Books, 2015.
Valynne E. Maetani’s debut young adult novel is a tightly-plotted thriller, with plenty of misdirection and tension. It’s also a story about identity, family, and love. This ought to make it weak, neither one thing nor the other. What gives this novel strength is the interconnection between the two stories. Claire, in tracking down the mystery of who her yakuza father was, grows to better understand who she is—sister, friend, daughter, and woman.
Claire is a strong, compelling character, intelligent, athletic, and dogged in pursuing a mystery. When, on the anniversary of her father’s death, she discovers a mysterious message that points to contradictions in the story she was always told about him, she sets out to uncover the truth about her father, her stepfather, and a mystery over a decade old. Claire is believable as someone who might go to any lengths to solve a puzzle, and her skills (including martial arts and lock picking), while unusual, are sufficiently justified to keep from being over the top.
There is a wonderful scene in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce that has stayed with me for 30 years. In this scene, the unnamed narrator dies and finds himself in hell, which is just a huge, sprawling subdivision where everybody lives alone. Whenever people try to live near each other, they start to argue and fight, so they move further and further away. There is no fire, no brimstone, and no demons with pitchforks: just a bunch of miserable people being themselves.
Something like this is also what Jean-Paul Sartre meant by the famous line, “hell is other people.” This does not mean (as it is so often quoted as meaning) that other people are inherently hellish, or that human beings cannot face the irreducible otherness of people not themselves. Sartre puts this line in his play No Exit, in which three people are sent to hell, which turns out to be a well-decorated Victorian parlor.
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings
Eric James Stone is perhaps best known in the science-fiction community for his Nebula-winning, Hugo-nominated story, “That Leviathan Whom Thou Hast Made” (2010), one of fifty published short stories. “Leviathan” demonstrated Stone’s ability to tell a compelling story incorporating an SF theme—alien/human interaction—with equally compelling perspectives on ethics, morality, spirituality, and religion.
His novel, Unforgettable, at first feels more focused on the physical, however, in particular on connections between individuals and the fascinating worlds posited by quantum physics. Nat Morgan is a quantum “freak,” what one character refers to as “Schrödinger’s cat burglar,” who “exists” only as long as people physically see him; precisely one minute after he leaves, they immediately forget him. His mother has forgotten him. Cell phones forget him. ATM computers—indeed all computers—forget him. Worse, his handler at the CIA forgets him, so every time Morgan contacts the agency for an assignment, he must reestablish not only his identity but his existence.
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings
Larry Correia’s action-adventure novels range from military thrillers to urban fantasies to epic high fantasies, often with accurately detailed depictions of modern and imagined weaponry. His first novel, Monster Hunters International, placed on the Locus bestsellers list; its sequel appeared on the New York Times lists, as have subsequent books. His series include Grimnoir Chronicles, Dead Six (with Mike Kupari), and now The Saga of the Forgotten Warrior. His work in speculative fiction/fantasy is highly regarded, as is the straightforwardness with which he defends his stands on such diverse issues as the role of speculative fiction in society and gun use and gun control.
For readers familiar with Correia’s work only through his Monster Hunters International series, Son of the Black Sword might seem like an established approach to an accustomed pattern. In the first pages, Correia presents his hero, Ashok Vadal, with a monster to be dispatched: a sea-demon threatening to destroy villages along the coast of the continent Lok
By Kristine A.
We live in an age of doubt, but we need not be overcome. When we are planted in the Savior we can be nourished as much by our questions as by the answers.”
“Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt” is written by Patrick Mason and is a joint venture between the Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and Deseret Book. Patrick Mason is the Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate College and a Mormon historian.
When I first saw this was being released I kind of rolled my eyes. “Great,” I thought, “another book that will describe what I’ve been through (a la Crucible of Doubt) that ultimately preaches to the choir.”
By Board Member Michael Austin
What began as a hobby horse for me has now graduated to a soapbox. And the soapbox goes like this: Americans and other Westerners really need to start learning things about Muslim religion and culture. And by “things” I mean real things . We are doing quite nicely with broad brush strokes and glaring generalizations, thank you very much.
But as presidential candidates propose to cheering throngs that we ban Muslims from our midst, close down mosques, and otherwise betray the foundational principles of our country, the rest of us have an obligation to understand what is being invoked to scare us.
By BHodges [Cross-posted to By Common Consent]
Twenty-five years ago, Michael Hicks published one of the most enjoyable books about Mormon history I’ve ever read. Mormonism and Music still flies under the radar when people compile lists of their favorite Mormon history books, but his analysis of LDS music as influenced by nineteenth and twentieth century culture holds up as a must-read study of Mormon religiosity to this day. He also contributed the entry on Music to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Hicks is adding upon that solid foundation with a new book: The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: A Biography. And it’s just as fun, lucid, and intriguing as his earlier effort.
Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics is a superb work of social science. David Campbell, John Green, and Quin Monson make exhaustive use of numerous recent surveys conducted by the Pew Forum and Gallup, and a half-dozen surveys which they designed themselves, to produce about as detailed and revealing a look at the political preferences and peculiarities of the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in America as probably any group of scholars ever could. While some of the information which the authors make use of has already been reported in American Grace (a blockbuster in the sociology of religion in America which Campbell co-authored with Robert Putnam), here that information is packaged alongside numerous historic observations and other scholarly insights, resulting in something which stands entirely on its own. Of course, as with any academic study that depends largely upon survey research and the self-reporting of those interviewed, the compiled results need to be recognized for what they are: namely, the best conclusions that correlational and regression analysis allows. Still, I think it is fair to say that just as all serious discussions of actual religious practices and behaviors in the U.S. need to take Putnam and Campbell’s work into consideration, this book by Campbell, Green, and Monson is indisputably the new starting point for all serious conversations about American Mormons and politics from here on out.
Peter Enns is an evangelical Christian and a Bible scholar—two identity markers that’ve raised a few conflicts for him. Which really is too bad, because he seems like a pretty faithful, intelligent, funny guy. At least, he seems like that based on this faithful, intelligent, and funny book he just wrote about the Bible. It’s called The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.
I think a lot of Mormons could really benefit from Enns’s experience.
Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact (released today) appears at a tense moment for LDS church members with regard to gender issues. Some members have advocated for ordaining women to the priesthood while others have asserted that manifesting dissatisfaction with the status quo is inappropriate. As for author Neylan McBaine, she loves being a Mormon woman. But she also believes “there is much more we can do to see, hear, and include women at church” (xiii). Situated between these two poles without disrespect to either, her book has two main goals: First, to identify and acknowledge the real pain felt by some LDS women, and second, to offer solutions to provide a more fulfilling church experience for them—solutions that fit within the Church’s current administrative framework.
When I heard that Professor Givens had embarked on a work of “Mormon Theology” I was more than a little skeptical. Not that it hasn’t been done before. That isn’t the problem. It’s just that theology, as James Faulconer has written, is something that just doesn’t seem to fit Mormonism. However, when I got my greedy little hands on Givens’ book, I was pleased to see that it is a work of theological heritage. In Givens’ words: “I am here tracing what I regard as the essential contours of Mormon thought as it developed from Joseph Smith to the present, not pretending to address the many tributaries in and out of Mormonism’s main currents.”(x)
Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem
By Michael Austin, Dialogue Board Member
Greg Kofford Books, 2014
Academic approaches to scripture sometimes arouse suspicion in LDS circles, especially when they include the Higher Criticism (“Moses didn’t write the five books of Moses?”) or reading the Bible as literature (“So you think this is a work of fiction?”). People using or advocating these approaches often draw charges of privileging the intellectual ways of the world over the pure spiritual truth of God, of trusting in the arm of flesh, or of kowtowing to secular disbelief in the interest of seeming more acceptable.
By Blair Hodges
Did the law of consecration become effectively suspended or temporarily replaced by the law of tithing when the early Latter-day Saints couldn’t make it work out? Joseph M. Spencer answers no in For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope. Spencer’s latest book offers an analysis of the law of consecration through a close and detailed reading of selections from Paul’s letter to the Romans and Joseph Smith’s revelation now canonized as section 42 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
Last week, popular Christian evangelist Ravi Zacharias returned to Salt Lake City to address Mormons and other Christians from the Tabernacle pulpit. Back in 2004, Zacharias’s historic Tabernacle address was overshadowed in the news by Richard Mouw’s controversial introductory remarks. Mouw, president of the Fuller Theological Seminary, issued an apology to Mormons on behalf of evangelicals who he said had sinned against Mormonism by misrepresenting their beliefs and practices. Over the past decade, the evangelical (Calvinist) Christian has continued to dialog with various Mormons in order to promote better interfaith relationships. During the last two presidential elections he became one of the many go-to sources for news outlets seeking soundbites on evangelical views of Mormonism. He’s taken a lot of heat for this within his religious community–early on being told that he didn’t know Mormons well enough and so would easily be deceived by them, later being told he had become too close to Mormons to have a clear view of their dangerous heresies.
His new book Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals is an effort to educate the evangelical community about his ongoing work with Mormonism.
The recent “Mormon moment” exasperated theologian Stephen Webb. It wasn’t that Mitt Romney’s presidential run lent undue legitimacy to the LDS Church, or that Webb thought the media went too soft on the religious background of the Republican nominee. Although he is not a Mormon himself, Webb was unnerved by shallow discussions about Mormon underwear and other apparent trivialities. According to Webb, such conversations fail to pay due attention to Mormon metaphysics—the way Mormons understand the nature of matter, humans, God, and existence. His new book, Mormon Christianity, explores the development and coherence of this core belief taught by Joseph Smith: “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes…” (D&C 131:7). Mormons make no ultimate distinction between spirit and matter, the natural and supernatural, which largely sets them apart from the broader Christian tradition. ”The Mormon imagination is solidly grounded in material reality,” writes Webb, “but it takes the physical world to new and unheard-of heights” (10). Webb believes Christian lungs can benefit from the rarefied air of these heights.
Another review of Common Ground/Different Opinions: Latter-day Saints and Contemporary Issues, eds. Justin F. White and James E. Faulconer by Michael Austin, Dialogue Board member, and Provost of Newman University in Wichita, KS.
As citizens, we must argue with each other about important things. Participating in an inherently adversarial political system means proposing arguments and defending positions. Both our nation and the Constitution that governs it are built on a process designed to turn vigorous discussion and debate into manageable lumps of compromise that permit us to move ahead.
As Latter-day Saints, however, we must be of one heart and one mind. Becoming a Zion people means that we covenant to bear one another’s burdens that they may be light, to mourn with those that mourn, to comfort those who stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God in all times and in all things (Mosiah 18:8-9).
These are not mutually exclusive responsibilities, of course, but they can be difficult to reconcile in the real world. To be good citizens and good saints, we must either learn how to agree with each other about everything, which is impossible, or we must find ways to disagree as loving brothers and sisters, which is really hard.
I didn’t like every story in Jack Harrell’s collection of short stories, A Sense of Order and Other Stories. But a few of them stuck with me over the past few months, occasionally surfacing at the shoreline as the cognitive tide recedes just before sleep.
Cross-posted at By Common Consent by Blair Hodges
What is a human?
David Grandy called my attention to Richard Dawkins calling attention to G.G. Simpson’s assertion that “all attempts to answer that question before 1859 [the year Darwin published Origin of the Species] are worthless and . . . we will be better off if we ignore them completely.” Pay no attention to the human behind the definition of “human,” we’re told–or perhaps, warned. After all, paying close attention to the ways the human has been defined historically will certainly upset Fundamentalist-minded atheists and Christians alike; the folks who fear the liminal, the shifting, the outer rims, the ungraspable, the uncontrollable, the monster.
Common Ground, Different Opinions is a collection of essays written by a variety of Latter-day Saint authors on controversial issues like environmentalism, stem cell research, gay marriage, feminism, and war. James E. Faulconer, BYU professor of philosophy and the volume’s co-editor, emphasizes such a book is needed because members of the Church in various countries “are confronted with one issue after another that demands their thought and decision” while the Church, through its constituted authorities, has made no official pronouncement on many of them. Not all of the issues call for pro and con pieces (who would write against Margaret Blair Young’s appeal to eschew racism?). Faulconer emphasizes that the essays are less about providing arguments that readers ought to accept and more about modeling different ways faithful Mormons approach difficult topics:
James E. Faulconer, Richard L. Evans Chair for Religious Understanding and professor of Philosophy at BYU, has recently published what is essentially a study aid for this years’ Sunday School course in the Doctrine and Covenants. The book can be considered a supplement and companion to his earlier, Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions (the full text is available at the link). Like Scripture Study, Doctrine and Covenants Made Harder is more properly a tool or a guide than a book (a similar volume on the Book of Mormon is forthcoming). Consisting almost entirely of questions about key passages in the scriptural text (though with occasional commentary in order to clarify a particular question), the book is designed to stimulate discussion about the scriptures.
Title: Mormonism at the Crossroads of Philosophy and Theology: Essays in Honor of David L. Paulsen When it comes to academic engagement with philosophy and theology, Mormonism largely lacks two things: People and place. Mormons who are interested in making a comfortable living typically don’t seek higher education in these areas. The Church’s schools, seminaries and institute’s focus more on devotional approaches to the faith. Such circumstances help explain why some of the most sustained work in recent Mormon theologizing and philosophizing has occurred in interfaith settings, which can provide interlocutors and institutions for participation and publication. When the topic of Mormon/Christian interreligious dialog arises, people are likely to think of Stephen E. Robinson’s How Wide the Divide, or Robert Millet’s books attempting rapprochement with various Evangelical scholars, books published mostly by non-Mormon presses. David L. Paulsen’s name is less likely to be recognized by the average Mormon than Robinson or Millet, but it is arguable that Paulsen has done more than any currently-living Mormon scholar in advancing sustained and rigorous interfaith exchanges. The scary and valuable thing about exchanges is that everyone usually departs changed in some sense.
In this quirky autobiographical biography of Joseph Smith the Mormon prophet, writer Jane Barnes offers an overview of Smith’s life intertwined with her own life experiences of love, loss and death.
Barnes became acquainted with Mormonism largely through her work on the PBS documentary, The Mormons. Hearing stories about Joseph Smith, researching the works of Fawn Brodie and Richard Bushman, meeting with the LDS missionaries, all of these things drew out Barnes’s deeply felt religious need (261). She interweaves her interpretation of Smith with her own life experiences—leaving her family to pursue a lesbian relationship gives her a different view of Smith’s socially deviant polygamy, for example. She is struck to discover her own Mormon roots, ancestors who were present at key turning points in the Mormon story.
Title: Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theolog
I watched Groundhog Day the other night. I’ve owned the DVD for years but never tore the plastic wrapping until Adam Miller put a bug in my ear via one of his theological essays. (It was just as good as I remembered it!) Miller, the theological film critic. I laughed when Phil, Bill Murray’s character, punched Ned Ryerson in the face at a busy intersection and I teared up as he fruitlessly pummeled the chest of a dying homeless man in a freezing alleyway. “Come on, pops, come on pops, don’t die on me.” Watching Phil struggle through incomprehension, laugh at absurdity, and find joy in relationships, reminded me a lot of reading Miller’s book. I’d already read great reviews of it, I couldn’t wait to get a copy. But I hit many more brick walls than I anticipated. This deceptively thin volume will take much more of your time than you might think. It felt at times like the alarm clock kept hitting 6:00 AM, February 2, and I was in for another round of difficulty. Not that all the essays were the same, but that they were each difficult in their own way. It’s way above my level to feel confident in doing this, but my review is an attempt to help readers like me have a better chance at making it through the book.
In this new podcast “C.S. Lewis and Mormonism,” Book Review Editor Blair Hodges joins Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon and other panelists Mahonri Stewart and Katie Langston to discuss “Lewis’s life and writings and impact both in religious conversation at large as well as in their own lives. Especially within their own lives and spiritual journey.”
For more on C.S. Lewis and how he influences Mormon thought, see Blair Hodges’ Dialogue article “‘All Find What They Truly Seek’: C. S. Lewis, Latter-day Saints, and the Virtuous Unbeliever”
In case you missed it during the business that is the holiday season, the winter issue of Dialogue appeared on its website. As its lead article, our own Steve Taysom offers a fabulous look at one of the new and provocative theories in religious studies: Robert Orsi’s “abundant events.” This theory should be familiar with Mormons studies practitioners and Dialogue readers since Orsi, Richard Bushman, and Susanna Morrill did an interview about it in Dialogue‘s fall 2011 issue. Put simply, Orsi’s theory starts with the problem that plagues many scholars: what does one do with supernatural events that are claimed by the religious people one studies? Or as Steve summarizes, “how do scholars of religion account for experiences that are simultaneously irrational and real?” (4-5) Orsi’s response is to construct a conceptual category that both avoids the reductionism of skeptical scholars while still providing a framework in which the importance of the claimed experience can still be analyzed. Taysom examines the theory and sees how it works when applied to the study of Mormonism’s gold plates.
Theology as Poetry A review of Adam S. Miller’s Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2012), 132 pp. Robert A. Rees “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel …
Various blogs are discussing this new book from Terryl and Fiona Givens: The God Who Weeps has been hailed as one of “most welcome serious theological engagement with some of the more resonant ideas Mormonism has promulgated in its 180 year history.”
Other blog reactions:
“…I will just say that this is the single best book of Mormon Studies that I have ever read” – Julie M. Smith at Times and Seasons
Behold, there shall be a record kept among you.
These are words of revelation to which all those interested in the human past muster a resounding amen, Latter-day Saint and non-Mormon alike. The process of heeding that call in the early Church of Christ started and restarted in fits of optimism. Because of the records that were eventually kept, the project of Joseph Smith’s institutional history was ultimately finished, though more than a decade after his death. Most interested observers of Mormonism have approached this history through B.H. Roberts’ edited version, published and republished as the History of the Church (sometimes called the “Documentary History of the Church” in the twentieth-century literature because of its documentary structure). However, there are more histories than one, and more pure.
Title: Dimensions of Faith: A Mormon Studies Reader
Author: Stephen C. Taysom
Publisher: Signature Books
Genre: Religious Studies
Back when he was a doctoral student in religious studies, Stephen C. Taysom wished he had a collection of “fine scholarship” he could use to show professors and others “who expressed skepticism about the fitness of Mormonism as an object of serious academic study” what they were missing (vii). Now Taysom is a professor of religious studies at Cleveland State University. His reworked dissertation, Shakers, Mormons, and Religious Worlds: Conflicting Visions, Contested Boundaries, was published in 2011 by Indiana University Press. Enough has changed within the academy (and within Taysom’s own circles) over the past few years to turn his professors’ skepticism into inquiry: “I have received requests from colleagues for a selection of readings that might be used profitably in courses dealing with Mormonism,” Taysom reports in Dimensions of Faith: A Mormon Studies Reader (xi). The reader is a collection of fifteen essays analyzing Mormonism through literary, ritual, film, gender, folklore, and other studies. Taysom argues that the collection’s very existence bears witness that “Mormonism is a rich field of inquiry into which theories and methods of a vast array of disciplines are being widely and skillfully integrated” (viii). Rather than describing a few of the papers Taysom selected and giving them a thumbs up or down, I’d like to use the book as a way to examine a few key issues being debated—or not—in discussions of Mormon studies today.
Title: Tiki and Temple: The Mormon Mission in New Zealand, 1854–1958
Author: Marjorie Newton
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Reviewed by Amanda Hendrix-Komoto
Note: The term Pakeha refers to the white settler population of New Zealand, while the Maori are the islands’ indigenous peoples.
Tucked in the back of Marjorie Newton’s Of Tiki and Temple is a Maori glossary. It is possible to read and understand her work without referring to it to discover that a mihi is a greeting or welcoming ceremony or that quarterly conferences were called hui pariha in the Mormon Church in New Zealand. The glossary’s existence, however, is evidence of Newton’s commitment to writing a history of the Mormon Church in New Zealand that recognizes the contributions of indigenous Maori culture to the church and is meticulous in its detail.
Stephen Taysom, The Patheos Guide to Mormonism (Series Editor Kathleen Mulhern), available in e-book formats for $2.99. For details, see this website.
Reviewed by Kevin Barney
Remember when you were in high school, and you were assigned a five-page paper? Oh, how you struggled to reach that goal of five pages! If you got desperate enough, perhaps you played with fonts, margins and line spacing in an effort to cross the finish line with some hopefully-not-too-obvious space padding techniques made possible by the computer age. What a relief it was when you finally achieved the assigned length. Maybe you would even add an extra paragraph, so it wouldn’t look too obvious how much you were straining to get to five pages of text.
Title: The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy
Editors: Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster
Publisher: John Whitmer Books
Reviewed by Blair Hodges
We usually just want the unvarnished truth. Tell us the facts. Drop the spin. Lay it all out on the table. State your case objectively and we’ll decide to believe you or to reject your views. Give us some easy bullet points, a quick overview, a succinct argument, and the jury will return shortly with the verdict. The problem is that we all too often forget we’re all incapable of constructing, let alone judging between, contrasting claims about our past in an “objective” way. This is my non-comprehensive way of explaining our persistent interest in history, of course. “History speaks not only of the past but also of the present.”1
Title: How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels
Author: N. T. Wright
Genre: New Testament
Reviewed by Blair Hodges
The crux of Anglican scholar N.T. Wright’s latest book, How God Became King, can be summed up quite easily, if quite dramatically: “most of Western Christianity has simply forgotten what the gospels are really about” (ix). According to a dominant Christian view today, God created the world and called Israel to be His people, and upon their failure he sent down Plan B, Jesus, to fix everything up and take us away to heaven (84). This is all wrong, Wright says, and reflects an over-emphasis of the early creeds on one hand and problematic Reformation additions or over-reliance on critical scholarship on the other, more than it reflects the stories or purposes of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John:
Title: Habits of Being: Mormon Women’s Material Culture
Editor: Elizabeth Pinborough
Publisher: Exponent II
Genre: Personal Essays
Price: Sold Out
By Emily Jensen
Reading underneath my great-grandmother Florence Shepherd Warburton’s pastel paintings in the old rock Warburton home in the tiny town of Grouse Creek, Utah, I connected with Habits of Being—this book of personal essays from women looking longingly at ancestral artifacts for links to those women, some known, some unknown, who came before.
It was a glorious experience, made even more poignant by the fact that it was Memorial Day, one that made me want to write my own essays about my own ancestors, about the women and men who furnished, occupied, and beautified the very surroundings in which I sat. And if there is anything I wish to impart in this review, it’s the need for women and men to search out connections to their past and write them up, then archive them safely. In fact I’ll bold that part, just in case that’s the only sentence you read.
Title: The Power of Parable: How Fiction By Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus
Author: John Dominic Crossan
Genre: New Testament
By Blair Hodges
Jesus was so meta. In his famed parable of the Sower “the word” is compared to seed being cast onto the ground where it might grow or perish. And the word “parable” itself comes from the Greek—para (“with” or “alongside”) and ballein (“to put” or “to throw”). As popular biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan observes in his latest book: “Jesus was not trying to improve the agricultural yield of lower Galilee.” The activity of sowing is “cast alongside and compared with” the dissemination of the word; this is essentially a parable using parable as parable (10).
Crossan explores this manner of teaching in his provocatively-titled The Power of Parable: How Fiction By Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus.
Title: The Book of Mormon: A Biography
Editor: Paul C. Gutjahr
Reviewed by Blair Hodges
The Book of Mormon, that curious text said to be dug from a hill in upstate New York and translated by the gift and power of God, has been reincarnated over its 180-plus year lifespan into an interesting variety of bodies: from its various print editions, to films in silent black-and-white and full color, as children’s editions and comic books, even inspiring an award-winning Broadway musical. It’s spawned paintings, cartoon show episodes, and action figures. Since its birth in 1830 the Book of Mormon has been argued over and analyzed in print—approaches ranging from polemical to academic and any mix of the two. Most significantly, it has served as a key religious devotional text within the still-growing branches of Mormonism, the most prominent being the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has shepherded the text through translation into 109 world languages from Afrikaans to Zulu, with more on the way.1 All of this and other interesting elements of its impressive life are explored in Paul C. Gutjahr’s The Book of Mormon: A Biography, part of Princeton University Press’s impressive new “Lives of Great Religious Books” series—handsome little clothbound volumes short enough to get through in one or two sittings.
What’s that you say, Joseph M. Spencer, graduate student of philosophy at San Jose State? You’re just out offering a radical new textually-based interpretation of the entire Book of Mormon in your spare time, hmm? Radical and new. Sounds like a nice little project you got there, yes. Wait, what?!
We’ve had the BoM for over a century now, what can we possibly have missed in all this time? Keep in mind that the assumptions which we readers bring to the text help determine the meaning we receive from the text. Spencer’s two broad guiding assumptions to his new approach to the BoM are (1) That the theological ideas of the BoM have been carefully arranged by the prophets within larger narrative textual structures. Thus, “Embedded in these larger structures, many of the Book of Mormon’s ideas draw meaning and especially nuance from their context” (xi). (2) That “ideas change with time and circumstance.” And because the BoM’s ideas are “woven into a real—and therefore anything but tidy—history,” readers may mistakenly gloss over some of the complexity of ideas within the text, missing out on the complexity within the book (xii). He seems to be saying “we need to quit reading the BoM in such a univocal fashion.” Spencer assumes we have a book sort of like the Bible—an edited compilation with a variety of voices. With this in mind, very interesting things begin to emerge from the text. Not a voice, but voices from the dust.
You’re sure to hear a few such discordant notes as Brooks’s fingers glide up and down the scale, but to focus on such slips overlooks the book’s overall melody, the song of a Mormon girl whose nascent faith is challenged, lost, found, and refined by fire throughout. She’s the prodigal daughter telling only a little about years of riotous living, more about the faith of her youth and the re-visioned faith of her adulthood. Memoirs aren’t intended to tell a disconnected story of one’s life, but to invite readers into an intensely subjective world. The best memoirs aren’t written as how-to manuals (like the Marie Osmond brand beauty and fashion instructions Brooks read as an awkward, body-conscious young girl. You’re sure to laugh out loud as she spends a chapter pillorying such fluff). Instead, as theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed, good memoirs awaken “a sense of what it might be like to be someone else or to live in another time or culture, and they tell us about ourselves, stretch our imagination, and enrich our experience.”2 American publisher William Sloan says readers of such works are not so much saying to the author “Tell me about you,” but rather “Tell me about me; as I use your book and life as a mirror.”
There’s a new series of short commentaries on excerpts of the BoM in town. But this new series of books on the Book are, from the very beginning, said to be guided by interpretive strategies found within the BoM itself. Recall at the outset of this review I mentioned that the BoM contains scattered pieces of its own interpretive instruction manual. The editors and contributors to this collaborative new series excavate some of these instructions from Alma 32 (An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32, ed. Adam S. Miller) and from 2 Nephi (Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah: Reading 2 Nephi 26-27, ed. Joseph M. Spencer and Jenny Webb).3
According to the series introduction, the books are produced by “The Mormon Theology Seminar,” an “unofficial and independent” scholarly collaboration. “Theology” is somewhat of a foreign word to many Mormons. (We have doctrine, we don’t have professional theologians, some might say.) But the series proposes and enacts a theological reading of the BoM. What does it mean to “read Mormon scripture theologically”? For this review I decided describe what Miller & co. mean by “Theology” in order to give you an idea if their approach is something you’d find worthwhile…
by Michael Hicks I’ll never forget the first time I heard my mother swear. I was in my thirties and had finally decided to talk to her about her second husband, whom she’d married when I was eleven, divorced two years later, and about whom, as if by a silent contract, we never spoke. “So …
by Klaus J. Hansen Originally published in Spring 1969 “Are we still Mormons?” Surely most readers will feel that this question cannot be anything but rhetorical, at worst a cheap journalistic trick to attract an audience, or at best a pretext to affirm proudly what all committed Mormons know, that in spite of all the …
by Stacy Burton The Province of the Extreme Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 372 pp. Reviewed by Stacy Burton, Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Nevada, Reno. Krakauer’s success has come as a writer of narrative nonfiction. He is best known for Into …